When Michelle Bedke was in 10th grade, her father was forced to retire. Suddenly, the family had no money for her college education, she said.
Bedke applied for as many college scholarships as she could find and received four, she said.
"All I had to pay to go to school was $150" a semester, said Bedke, now in her first year at Howard Community College.
Last week, the 18-year-old got to thank at least one of her benefactors in person, at a college-sponsored lunch specifically for scholarship donors and the students who benefit from the money they give.
"It's one of my favorite events," said Patrick L. Huddie, chairman of HCC's board of trustees. "It's very human. You can see money in action."
About 200 students, school officials and scholarship sponsors ate lasagna, salad, fruit and pastries at the Thursday lunch, held on the spacious fourth floor of the Rouse Company Foundation Student Services Hall.
"The idea was to bring students and donors together," said college President Kate Hetherington. "It's turned into this event that the donors, especially, love."
The annual lunch began in 2001 and has quadrupled in size since that first year, according to Missy Mattey, executive director of the college's Educational Foundation. "We've actually outgrown every room we've been in," she said.
Bedke, who lives in Columbia, shared a table with Peter Horowitz, of the Horowitz Endowment, which had provided some of the money for her education. As he listened intently, she told him of her interest in languages and her goal of launching an international business career.
If it wasn't for Horowitz and other donors, she said, "I probably wouldn't be sitting here now. It's great to see the people who helped you."
Horowitz said he attends the lunch every year.
"You've got to be in touch with the students," he said. Horowitz and his wife, Beth, who sat at a nearby table, funded the college's Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center. Their Horowitz Foundation also provides scholarship money that the school can dispense as it sees fit, said Horowitz.
Student Shayna Wise, 18 and in her first year at HCC, is in the Rouse Scholars Program. She said the lunch gives her a chance to say thanks.
"I didn't have to pay for anything this semester," said Wise, who is studying Chinese and Spanish with an eye toward international studies. "I am so grateful. I wanted to come and actually see the people who helped make that possible."
Another scholarship donor, Peter Mangione, whose family owns Turf Valley, said he was impressed with the students he met. "All the kids here are working really hard and try to get through school," he said. "It's a tough thing to do."
Scholarship money from the Mangione family helped Christine Conover, 19, attend college. The scholarship usually goes to hospitality students, said Mangione, but an exception was made for Conover, an education major, who used to work at Turf Valley.
During the hourlong lunch, Conover, of Ellicott City, was one of three students to speak to the assembled crowd.
"Because of your support, I have been able to attend college and be part of the learning community here," she said. "When I first entered HCC, I would not have had the confidence to speak before you today."
Second-year student Mary Gottschalk said financial support from the donors in the room meant she could "go forth with my dreams."
Student Melissa DiMartino told of her experiences as a 32-year-old college student and single mother. "I have learned that I have what it takes," she said. "Next semester, I'm going to be walking down that aisle."